December 12, 2012

Appel on Wine: Monogamy best not wasted on any particular wine

By Joe Appel

DEAR STILL WINE: We've known each other a long time. We had that mad, passionate time early on. We went on adventures. We spent long evenings together, we spent time apart and then traveled great distances to be back in each other's arms.

We've connected at levels so deep we had to invent new languages, and the rest of the world dissolved. We moved to that phase of deep contentment and comfort together. Sometimes that felt staid, rote, even less than intimate, but we always found each other again, and the mad passion came back.

But now it's gotten awkward. Too often one of us is distracted, or selfish or says the wrong thing. I drag you down, or you drag me. You leave in a huff, slamming the door, or you creep out the room with barely a glance. And I don't feel the thrill anymore.

So I need a break from you. I need to see other wines. OK, I've been seeing other wines. They're like you – more than you think – or, really, like the old you, or like the relationship I used to have with the old you: electric, alive, insane, hot. Bubbling. Sparkling.

Yes, that's their name. Sparkling. No, it's not some one-night thing. Take that back. After knowing me this long, do you really think I'd just pop one cork on a Champagne bottle Dec. 31 and then that's that, I don't call the next day? I wouldn't. I don't know if this is forever, but it's for now. There, I said it: Now is the time for me to drink as much sparkling wine as I can.

What, you really want me to tell you their names and what they're like? That's a little sick, but here's a start; maybe next week I'll tell you some more. It started with the Domaine Martinolles Cremant de Limoux. I mean, it really started with them: Limoux, in the Languedoc's far southwest, was one of the earliest places people made sparkling wine using what's known as the traditional method, where the secondary fermentation that produces bubbles takes place inside each individual bottle after a dose of sugar.

A Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon – you've heard of him, right? The father of Champagne? – wrote letters to Limoux winemakers asking about the process, and it wasn't until at least 100 years after Cremant de Limoux that the first sparkling Champagne was bottled. (For a long time Champagne was still, like you!)

Anyway, the Domaine Martinolles 2006 costs $18 (Wicked). It's so fresh, dry and alive, I jump six inches off the ground every time I taste it. A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir, it's briny, very clean and long in the mouth. Intense, precise atom-sized bubbles. A slightly sour yeastiness that induces a full-mouth kiss. (Sorry, you asked.)

There's a way to make sparkling wine that predates "traditional," and that's "ancestral." Ancestral wine sparkles after the primary fermentation is halted by cooling (something that had to happen naturally, in late fall, before the advent of refrigeration), the partially fermented wine is bottled and then allowed to warm up (this happened, historically, in spring) to continue the fermentation, with the trapped carbon dioxide making the bubbles.

Domaine des Terres Blanches is a very traditional winery in the Loire Valley. Farming biodynamically and vinifying with wild yeasts at close to the extremes of minimalism and non-intervention, Benoit and Celine Blet make terrific still Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, as you know. They also make two "ancestral" sparkling wines, a Brut Chenin ($20, Devenish) that is the very definition of definition: tight bubbles, awe-inspiring balance of sweet and citrus, crisp, just leaping out of the glass.

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